Strictly Come Racism – (some of) the facts

I watch Strictly Come Dancing. This is a bit of a shame, but I do. I enjoy it being on in the background, a bit like golf or the Archers. And like golf, Strictly has always smelled a little racist to me. It’s always seemed to me that ethnic minority contestants have a much rougher ride than ethnic majority contestants, at least in terms of the public vote. Others have felt the same: when I decided to write this I had a little look around the internet and found a bunch of articles from the past few years about perceived racism, including, in a very circumspect way, the only black dancer on the show, Oti.

This year the racism issue came up again when Chizzy left early doors, against the odds. She later argued that race had nothing to do with her elimination, and that to play the race card is “dangerous” when “there are real racial injustices going on in the world”. Alexandra, currently on the receiving end of Strictly racism, has spoken out against the accusation that the show mistreats ethnic minorities. The show doesn’t see race, she says, and lots of people have agreed with her.

So who’s right? Is it racist or not?

You might think we’d find the answer in the articles that discuss this, but no: each merely repeats the claims and counterclaims of varied contestants / dancers / viewers, without any attempt to uncover the truth or falsity of any particular point of view. The only piece I found which claimed to try to get to the truth of the matter was in the Radio Times – Statistics Show Strictly Come Dancing is not Racist. While this an improvement on the he-said-she-said ‘reporting’ elsewhere, it doesn’t show an awful lot: for one thing the numbers involved are not statistically significant, and for another, the article doesn’t define in what way Strictly is supposed to be racist.

So before I knee-jerk in either direction, I thought I’d fill the gap in the market with a little Sunday morning research.

Question: Is Strictly Come Dancing racist?

Hypothesis: Strictly Come Dancing is structurally racist through the action of viewer votes. Specifically, BME contestants receive on average fewer public votes than white contestants, disproportionate to their dancing ability.

Method: To assess the hypothesis, we need to measure the viewers votes and how these relate to race. Strictly doesn’t tell us specifics about how many public votes the contestants get, so the only way we can access data about viewer votes is by looking at the bottom two contestants each week. By measuring the distance that contestants fell down the leader-board in order to end up in the bottom two, we can see the impact of viewer votes. We can then compare the amount that BME contestants fell compared to white contestants.

Now, for the purposes of this study, I’m assuming the judges votes are objective and not motivated by race. Given this assumption, we will be able to identify structural racism if BME contestants fall further than white contestants.

Details: I used the wikipedia data on each and every series, measuring every couple in the bottom two throughout the competition, and assigning each instance with a score representing the difference between their position before public votes and their position afterwards. I looked at the difference in each series and across the show as a whole, then validated the data to see whether any difference was statistically significant or not. (I can provide a very messy spreadsheet with the data if anyone’s interested).

Results: Across every series of Strictly except the very first, BME contestants in the bottom two fell further from their pre-phone-in positions than white contestants. The average fall for BME contestants is 2.54 places, while the average for white contestants is 1.63 places. That’s a difference of 0.91 places per show.

Series Average places dropped (W) Average places dropped (BME)
2017 1.29 3.31
2016 2.22 2.80
2015 1.33 2.32
2014 2.07 2.13
2013 1.67 3.25
2012 1.50 3.50
2011 1.00 1.67
2010 1.50 3.50
2009 2.36 2.80
2008 1.53 2.32
2007 1.80 2.00
2006 1.41 1.67
2005 1.47 3.00
2004 1.36 3.00
2003 1.7 0.5
Overall difference Average places dropped (W) Average places dropped (BME)
2003-2017 (Dec 3rd) 1.63 2.54

In the least disparate of recent seasons (2014), the difference was minimal – 2.07 (white) against 2.13 (BME) places. But in the most disparate seasons there was a difference of 2 whole places. For example, during the current season, white contestants in the dance-off have fallen on average 1.29 places to end up there, while BME contestants have fallen 3.30 places. That means that in this series (and two others which are equally extreme – 2012 and 2010), BME contestants need to be at least 3 places outside of the bottom two in order to avoid the dance-off.

Significance: While the results for each individual series are not statistically significant (that is, the variance between white and BME contestants is potentially random and not definitely correlated to race), the results across the show’s run are very significant (that is, we can be confident that the public voting is less well disposed to BME contestants, regardless of ability). The likelihood of the difference in the public’s voting habits being random is less than 0.1%.

Discussion: Does this prove that Strictly is racist? As a show, no. It’s not racist, as there’s nothing in the format that discriminates between those of different races. As an edifice, though, Strictly is racist, as the outcomes for those that take part are determined in part by their race and not their ability. Strictly is racist not because of Len Goodman and Tony Beak (well, it is racist because of them, but that’s a different issue), but because of us, the voters. By disproportionately choosing not to vote to save BME contestants, we the voters make it harder for them to succeed.

But is this really racism? The outcomes might be discriminatory, but does that mean that it’s racist? It doesn’t feel that way at first, because each of us that’s voted for a white contestant hasn’t thought “I’ll save Mollie because I don’t like the dark fella” (No-one’s thought “I’ll save Mollie” at all, I know, but this is a hypothetical situation, so bear with me), we’ve thought “I’ll save Mollie because…, because, well she’s really…”, nope, literally can’t think of a reason anyone would save Mollie. Forget that hypothetical situation: let’s try Gemma instead: they don’t think “I’ll choose Gemma because she’s got white skin”, but “I’ll save Gemma because she seems like a nice human being”. Yeah, that works. It’s not active racism, to be sure, but isn’t it still racist if the impact is to have a disproportionately negative effect on people from a particular racial group?

Critique: Before we go onto that, let’s examine some alternative explanations for the disparity between BME and white contestants.

Maybe the BME contestants are all worse than the white contestants? This won’t do, however, as the study I’ve conducted doesn’t (unlike the Radio Times article) use absolute achievement as the measure, but voter-determined achievement relative to the objective measure of the judges. If BME contestants were worse dancers, the judges would mark them lower and they would fall a shorter distance to end in the bottom two.

Or would they? Are the judges really neutral? Maybe the assumption that the judges are neutral is not valid? Well in order for the judges’ inconsistencies to account for the underperformance of BME contestants, they’d have to be marking these contestants disproportionately highly – some kind of positive discrimination perhaps? I think this is unlikely, but I’ve no evidence to back this up. We’d need to rope in some other ballroom/latin judges to judge the judges, and I’ve certainly not got the patience for that.

If we continue with our assumption that the judges are not positively discriminating, maybe something else accounts for the public’s lack of enthusiasm for BME contestants rather than their race? Seems unlikely, but there is another possible explanation here: it could be that the BME contestants that do worse than expected are less famous than their white counterparts, and are therefore unlikely to have as large a public groundswell of support. I’m not sure about this – it may have something to it but we’d need to do proper research into public perception to find out whether it is.

But let’s suppose for the moment that it is true. This would mean that the BME contestants do worse on the ‘public-appeal’ aspect of the competition than they do in the dancing part not because they’re black or brown, but because they’re not as well known.

Even if this alternative explanation were true (which I’m really not sure about), it leaves a broader question: is this still racism? In one sense it is not, because the proximate cause of the lower position in the leader-board would not be race but well-known-ness. But in a broader sense it would nevertheless indicate an underlying unfairness in society, which creates the disproportionately low number of publicly-likeable BME celebrities. This in turn would presumably indicate an underlying tendency to find white people more likeable than BME people.

In either case, then (either the public not voting for BME contestants, or not voting for less-well-known contestants, who happen to be disproportionately BME) we’re dealing with a passive sort of racism – a racism inherent in the structures of society rather than an individual’s beliefs. It may make us squirm to call it racism (and that ‘us’ refers here to us white people) because we immediately go onto the defensive – “I’m not racist so it can’t be racism”. But surely racism should be defined by its effect on those who suffer it, not by the intention of those who perpetuate it, even if they do so unknowingly?

Talking about this kind of racism has recently led to a lot of pushback, especially from those emboldened by Trump and Farage and Mogg and their casual disregard for political correctness. We (again, we white people) hear the way they stand up against things that make us feel uncomfortable and there’s a part of us that wants to agree and say “how dare you tell me my Strictly is racist”. It’s a natural, if odious, reaction. By uncovering the facts instead of going straight on the offensive/defensive, I would hope we can cut through some of that tribal response and address the issue with a calm head.

And anyway, regardless of how uncomfortable we feel when we uncover racism, the bottom line is that where it exists in our society, it is all of our responsibilities to address it, even if it shows us up in a bad light.

Conclusion: What do we do, then? Racism is relatively easy to identify in its cruder forms, and needs tackling head on where it rears its head – Chizzy is right about that. But the fact that there are more extreme forms of racism which still flourish does not mean that we should ignore less extreme forms of racism. I disagree with Chizzy that it’s dangerous to point out real structural inequality as it exists in society. And we shouldn’t hide behind the words of others as an excuse for not seeking the truth (“Phew, Alexandra says it’s not racist so I can stop worrying about it”).

If we know that there’s a structural inequality in society it falls to us all to respond. How? If, as I suspect, a lot of the passive racism here is down to underlying bias, we can start by taking steps to re-balance. One simple way is to use our imagination more – to actively think more broadly and openly, rather than passively assuming that if we carry on as we are things will work out alright. They won’t; they don’t.

One final thought: one of the tragedies of the last couple of years has been the decreasing reliance on evidence in public debate, both in the media and in the social media. I don’t want to blow my horn (I do), but it was pretty easy for me to do some very basic research today to find out whether Strictly is racist, and if so in what way. It’s taken me the better part of a Sunday morning. But none of the papers or websites with Strictly racism articles thought to do this. And judging by the message boards and the twitters, very few of us thought to actually investigate a little before squirting out an opinion. We can do so much better than this.

Religious bigot from marginalised community with homophobic views is mentally unwell but earns money from hitting people but is a working-class hero but makes racist statements but speaks out for the homeless but supported brexit but is the victim of racial discrimination. Liberals confused, Tyson’s furious.

On certain days, my facebook feed is chock-full of mental-illness-awareness-raising. It tends to back up on days when there’s a high-profile sufferer who’s spoken out about mental illness and taboo, or when an easily-sound-biteable study is press-released. We’ve got to speak out and speak up, they say. We’ve got to get more treatment. We need parity of esteem. Stigma is bad, you guys! We need more funding. Especially for children. Especially for young men. Especially for those in minority communities. It’s the same message delivered differently. Sometimes there are pictures.

It’s fine, I guess. At the very least it provides a break from looking at babies. But so much of this stuff can just blur into a grey murk of well-intentioned blandness, unremarkable and uninspiring.

What aren’t we talking about?

What’s more interesting, I find, is when people don’t get involved. What’s not said tells you just as much about societal attitudes towards mental illness as what is said, sometimes more. For example, it’s surprised me how few (zero, so far) posts have popped up to speak out about the latest high-profile public figure who’s fallen from grace due to mental ill-health.

And I’m not talking about Will Young. No, I’m talking about the mentally-ill person we all love to hate: Tyson Fury.

With Tyson there’s been nothing. No-one publicly empathising with his plight. No-one highlighting the particular pressures of this sector of employment. No-one asking about how we change attitudes within the sport, or asking ‘are we doing enough for the mental health needs of the travelling community?’ Nothing. Why is this?

Maybe it’s because he’s a sportsman?

Nope, can’t be that. People are all over Gascoigne when he gets addicted to something and says a thing, or O’Sullivan when he pretends to quit and says a thing. And there’s always at least a smattering of attention paid to the sob stories of whichever footballing journeyman turns out to have had a gambling problem. Sports-people are great ammunition for the awareness-raising set, as they not only get to speak to a wider audience than usual, but get to wheel out the ‘crisis in masculinity’ dirge too.

So, is it because he’s from the travelling community?

I don’t think it can be that either. While the travelling community are pretty much the only ethnic group you can get away with discriminating against in polite society, they are still an identifiable minority, and as such should be prime grist for the liberal mill. Highlighting Tyson’s fury should kill two birds with one stone – you can advocate both for the mentally ill and the ethnically marginalised all at the same time. Bonus!

No, the reason people haven’t got involved is because he’s a bit of a shit.

So’s Gascoigne, you might say. But he always apologised (and was really good at kicking, which is nicer than hitting, but let’s leave that to one side). Tyson, on the other hand, is pretty nasty, and doesn’t seem to want to apologise for it, or to play the blame-it-on-my-illness card.

How nasty is he? By boxing standards, not that nasty, just a bit thick and a few PR-advisors short of a [I couldn’t think of anything snappy or funny to put in here. I really tried but I couldn’t]. But by everyday standards, he’s pretty nasty. He’s done the homophobia, the misogyny, the racism. Most of the key players.

This is confusing for us woolly awareness raising de-stigmatisers. We like a clean story, but we don’t get one here.

Goodies and (no) baddies

Why are we so keen on a clear narrative? Why do we need there to be obvious goodies and baddies? A lot of us awareness-raisers come from a person-centred background, which is about the woolliest of all of the counselling jumpers, which embraces each and every person with the message: “you’re great, you are, no matter what you’ve done or what you think. Your heart is a golden nugget and always will be. It’s just got a bit covered up by the bad words that some bad people said when you were young, but inside you is a beautiful unicorn just waiting to come out. Believe in yourself and let your nugget shine, and in no time at all, with no help from anyone else, you’ll become the beautiful rainbow you always were.” Or words to that effect.

We believe people are fundamentally good, in the person-centred world. Which is silly, clearly, but believe it we do. When you combine that childish belief with a medicalised model of mental illness which seeks to assign zero responsibility to those who are suffering, and you’re left with a world in which all badness must come from physical imbalances which are beyond our control, and all goodness is yours from within. There are no real baddies – only brain chemistry – and only goodies.

Which fits very nicely when your high-profile mental-ill-health sufferer is contrite, seeks medical help and externalises their problem. This suits us very well, as we can lazily consign all of the bad in them (even if it’s hurt others) to their illness, and still love the person we knew before they went off the rails. We love to watch as they go into rehab and come out clean, even if they relapse, because it allows us to see them as fundamentally good. Good people in their core, but on the surface afflicted by an illness (be it addiction, compulsive behaviour, anxiety, depression, whatever) that is not their responsibility.

Mental illness = not your responsibility?

Now I’m not going to go into the whole responsibility thing yet again. My views on this are unfashionable and I want to work them out properly before I say them outside of my head. But there is a problem with the standard, physicalising narrative we see in play in our attitudes towards high-profile sufferers: it doesn’t leave space for the Tyson Furys of this world.

Tyson (or, to be entirely accurate, the Tyson that we know through his public utterances) is, undeniably, a bit of a shit. He’s pretty horrible, as a human being. But he also has mental health issues. What we want to do when we hear that he has mental health issues is consign the nastiness to his illness and advocate for him to be treated gently and to not feel any stigma. That’s our stock response.

But we can’t on this occasion, as it’s just too great a leap of logic to put all of that nastiness down to mental illness. Plus, even if we wanted to he’s not making it easy for us – he’s not apologising and saying ‘I need help for my baddies’. He’s not fitting our narrative because after he goes to rehab and comes out clean, he’s still going to be homophobic and misogynystic and the rest. And then we’ll have to face up to a category we’re really not comfortable with: a mentally ill person who is also, in some respects, a bad person. Denied our stock response, then, and unable to fit him into our normal narratives, we stay quiet.

Mental illness = your fault?

Of course, on the other side of the liberal/conservative divide they’ve no problem with the category we’re struggling with here – that of a mentally ill person who is also, perhaps, a bad person. Indeed, if you look to the brexit press, it’s the only category they’ve got sun(where all mentally-ill people are dangerous and violent and completely responsible for their illnesses). This is worse, in terms of its effects and its closed-mindedness. But we’re not, I don’t think, doing that much better than them in terms of the clarity of our thinking, or in our flexibility and openness to the evidence.

On the liberal-accepting side, we too easily use ‘mental-illness’ as a get-out. A way of avoiding thinking difficult thoughts, and actually listening to the people we’ve categorised, or engaging with the nuances of morality and illness. It’s cleaner to put the mentally ill into an all-good (victims) or all-bad (criminals) category because it protects us from engaging with the messy fact that they’re people.

Add to all of this the fact that Tyson hails from the travelling community and has suffered considerable abuse because of his background, and you’ve got a perfect storm for liberal inertia. We know we should be advocating for him and for his community – they’re marginalised after all, and he’s been a victim of abuse – but we also know that he’s a bad man who expresses intolerant views. And that these views are pretty representative of a part of his community. And that he’ll continue to do so even after he’s had his brain fixed. He won’t disown any of it. He won’t apologise and wrap it all up neatly for us.

We just don’t know what to do with him – he challenges our cosy dichotomies and so we (just like the conservatives do with cases which don’t fit their categories) simply ignore him.

Rigid categories, blinkered kindness, fear

Why are we so rigid? Partly because of our woolliness and liberalness. But also, I think, because of the way mental health debate has been taken out of the hands of ordinary discourse and into the hands of medical science. We play along with this relocation because it’s most often done in the name of greater access and awareness etc. But by buying into a very narrow discourse, we’re left in a position where we can’t nuance our views to allow for someone who is discriminated against but is a shit person. Or for someone who discriminates against others but is deserving of our empathy. Or for someone who might be partially responsible for their mental illness. We just don’t talk about it because it doesn’t fit the categories we’ve unquestioningly adopted. Many is the occasion I’ve felt scared – even now as someone who’s trained to work in mental health – to ask some of the difficult questions I have about the way we perceive mental illness for fear of being illiberal and nasty. So I’ve ignored it too.

But by ignoring the cases which challenge our categories we fail to engage with the real world. A world in which we’re none of us completely responsible or completely free of responsibility for any aspect of ourselves, just as we’re none of us completely responsible or free of responsibility for the communities we grew up in. A world in which the dividing line between ‘prick’ and ‘personality disorder’ is blurrier than the sun. By talking about this in a grown-up way we might come to develop a language which situates mental health back in the realm of normal, messy, moral life, rather than the sterile, amoral, medicalised annex it currently occupies. But that’s scary. It means saying some things that feel horrible and bad and might offend people – it means blaming people we’ve got used to pardoning, and vise versa. I’ve tried to do that, but right now I’m too scared; I’ll keep quiet.

Who educates the educators?

Last week* your man Cameron said that we should be better at standing up for British values. He said this alongside his critique of Muslim women for not learning English and integrating, and of Muslim men for controlling them. His plan, then, was to ‘help’ more Muslim women learn English (as if Muslim was now a language) and join in more, thus freeing them from the control of their men.

Racism aside, I thought then how odd it was that your man Cameron only spoke to one side of the problem. He described three elements: the Muslim men too controlling, the Muslim women too meek, the indigenous of both sexes (the “we”) who don’t stand up enough for British values. So, three sides of a problem to address, and three education programs aimed at each side of the coin: one to help Muslim women learn English, another to help Muslim men be less controlling, and a third to help the indigenous population learn how to explain and share their beliefs.

No. No that didn’t happen. Only one of the three: the Muslim women one.

Sexism and racism aside, though, I kept my ire to myself, because, well, what’s the point of another rant? Obviously the establishment are sexist and racist and interested in furthering their own ends and keeping the status quo. I can’t change that.

But this morning I turned on the radio to stories of a rising number of referrals made to Channel (part of the Prevent anti-radicalisation scheme) by primary teachers. One was referred because they had asked “repeatedly” for a prayer room, and another because they had used the term “eco-terrorism” in class. What better illustration could there be of the desperate need to teach the deafeningly silent majority how to engage with the Other, than these examples of the ignorant and fearful indigenous?

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be looking at the other side too, or that radicalisation isn’t a real, scary thing that needs to be addressed. There is a problem with the radicalisation and the terrorism and that. We all know this. It’s pumped into our faces all the time. It’s real. It’s scary, if you’re that way inclined. But the presentation in politics and the media and everywhere is of a one-sided problem, located firmly with the Other, not with the ‘us’. The problem lies with the visitor not the host.

But radicalistaion as a concept only makes sense as something relational: the radical is radical precisely because of its relationship to a perceived norm. And by definition every relationship has (at least) two sides. Trying to to sort out a relationship from one side is nearly always doomed to fail. By ignoring the potential for action from the ‘us’ side of the relationship, Dave exempts ‘us’ from the problem. This is awful for the Muslim population, as they are demonised and ostracised. But it is also awful for the ‘us’, as we don’t get to be wrong, and don’t get to learn. We lose out too.

What might have been different? I think we British (and particularly we British middle class) have a particular problem, fostered through the loss of empire, with communicating positively about ourselves and our beliefs and traditions and cultures. We’re afraid of this because it feels too red-top, and so we bury our self-image where it can fester and putrefy into rancour and unjustified resentment. A well-designed and sensitive program exploring with the indigenous public how we can better and more clearly share our beliefs would be a powerful corrective to the all-too-easy location of the problem in the Other. But it would also be a powerful way of helping us to get better at communicating about ourselves and our beliefs.

Maybe a good place to start would be the teachers, some of whom are (on both sides) are radicalising the next generation as we speak. For example, it is a radical view to hold that someone asking for a prayer room is a potential terrorist. It is a radical view to hold that anyone who does not belong to your religion deserves to be treated as sub-human. Both need to be addressed, but neither can be addressed in isolation. We’re all involved, and we all need to change.

* I wrote this ages ago – January 2016 I think – but didn’t publish it. I’m not sure why, but maybe I feared I was ranting too much at that point in time. In a way, though, it’s the same message I’ve tried to get across in what I wrote about Brexit. I’m nothing if not consistent. We, the liberal elite, are far too quiet and comfortable, and are becoming a real force of conservatism in our unwillingness to speak or to act.

The Problem with Facebook

Well, not really facebook, more: The Problem with Microblogging in the Context of Disempowered Public Services. But that’s not quite so catchy a title, is it.

I wrote these blogs about leaving teaching two years ago. In fact they were the things that started me blogging:

Little Mickey Goggles, Part. 1

I read them for the first time the other day, and they made me cry. Mainly because reading them took me back to that time and place, and confronted me with how much of my identity was/is tied up with being/not-being a teacher. But also because they feel so horribly current. It doesn’t feel like anything has changed since then; in fact it feels like things have got worse. At least once a week my Facebook feed has a story in which someone is writing their own valedictory-defeat letter, or highlighting the ugly on-the-ground reality of primary education.

Little Mickey Goggles, Part. 2

In terms of consciousness raising, these kinds of posts are great. Education is so politicised a subject that the voice of the teacher (and more importantly the child) are often unheard beneath the rabble of political posturing. The same is true of other public services: as an outsider I felt much better informed about the junior doctors’ strike after reading a few junior doctors’ facebook posts describing their work and beliefs.

Little Mickey Goggles, Part.3 

But there’s a problem with these posts too. Well, there’s lots of problems – not least that the only people who read them are people who already agree – but there’s one problem which troubled me two years back and still troubles me now: what happens next? What happens to this ground-level knowledge after its been shared?

Doubtless it has some degree of impact on public understanding of the profession, and this is a good thing. But what does it change in real terms? That is, what difference does it make to a child’s experience of education? In the majority of cases, very little indeed.

For the teacher it’s a welcome moment of catharsis as they express their negativity and argue back against the system which is failing our children. If they write well enough it’s also a moment – or a day of moments – of affirmation and support from their online community. But after those moments? By an large, that teacher either leaves the profession (as I did) and so changes nothing, or stays in the profession and, frustrated, buckles under once more.

Why is this? I wrote last week about the way that, as things stand, there is simply no room within the current system for ground-level, bottom-up knowledge to change anything. Imagine the teacher who, energised by the catharsis of negativity expressed, clearer in her beliefs, and bolstered by 37 likes and a few comments of support, returns to school the next day ready to fight. Imagine the way that, as soon as she dares to express her situated, lived knowledge as a challenge to the system, she is shut down and told to put up or shut up [I never understood that expression; shouldn’t it be put up and shut up?] Even in excellent, nurturing schools, she will find herself coming up once again against an unthinking, unhearing system in which her knowledge and beliefs are simply irrelevant.

The more I’ve thought about these valedictory posts, the more I’ve found myself becoming frustrated with them, and with myself as I read them. Something is missing in all of this: action. In fact, I fear this kind of communication may ultimately make change less likely.

How so? Well, it’s great to get the positive feedback and feel like you’re in a community of like-minded people with similar experiences and beliefs. But this is a type of community ill-suited to action: it is community as curated by facebook. Because this is a facebook community and because facebook (and the twitters and the rest) is designed to provide tiny little squirts of emotional nourishment before returning us to a dull resting state of passive acceptance, it does not reach out and spur on. Instead another post is offered to us to click through to. The emotional engagement is real – we feel the pain and perceive the injustice; we even click the emoji or write the message, but Ooh, LadBible has a video of a man doing a thing!

We have come to accept, through the facebook, that the correct course of action, on hearing of someone’s immense pain which connects deeply with our own, is to make a comment and move on. At a distance, and on a platform which encourages short squirts over long entanglements, there is no will to solidarity; to action. The teacher who returns to the real world of a school in which they may be one of the few rather than the many – in which the ‘likes’ of their colleagues fail to translate into little more than a concerned look as they pass in the corridor – this teacher learns to quiet their brave voice. The community they thought they found seems now unfathomably distant from the real world. That facebook community is not nearly solid enough to back them up if we do fight the good fight. Real community stands up and acts; facebook (and all of the rest of the internet) is all sat down and reacting.

The problem with posting about the stresses and distress is that all of that anger and angst gets channelled into a catharsis that ultimately leads nowhere. It damps us down and helps us realise that the only place your voice counts is online: in the real world you just get by with as little hassle as you can. We learn that we are allowed to express our voices in public – microblogging has made this more possible than ever before – but we learn too that our voices are only to be expressed in this most private of public spheres.

By blogging or posting or tweeting or whatever we learn habits which are hard to unlearn: it’s safe and cosy to externalise our anger in small, supportive virtual communities. But that is not where our anger belongs. It belongs out there, in the real world – in the world the children we are failing inhabit. It belongs in real communities, channelled creatively and in solidarity. I fear that won’t happen if we’re able to deal with our troubles in the most private of public arenas.

This morning I read the Guardian’s Secret Teacher column. In it, a teacher who is I think symptomatic of the new generation of teachers suggests that all of the negativity we read on facebook is counter-productive and that we should instead focus our energies on adjusting to the system in order that it has a little an impact on learners as possible. They’re right, I think that the negativity expressed on facebook posts has a tendency to spiral in unhelpful ways, but how sad that the only solution this teacher can imagine is to make piecemeal protective adjustments. The new generation of teachers don’t believe they can have a voice which can change, and, if they continue to build their communities around the facebooks and such, they will be right. The other option would be to stand up in solidarity with one another, and there’s only one way to do that: do it.

Footsoldiers or Connoisseurs

(Paper presented at the Keele Counselling Conference on 7/5/16)

When the opportunity to present at the conference came up, my first thought was: what’s the point? Why bother? I’ve got nothing important to say and even if I did it wouldn’t change anything anyway.

For anyone who knows me and knows how passionate I am about counselling and about education and research, that would’ve come as something of a shock; I’m normally the first to jump at opportunities like this. And it shocked me as well. The more I dwelt on this shock and the negativity, the more I thought that I did have something I wanted to say: not to talk about my research, but to tell the story of doing the research – the story which ended with me feeling so negative and dis-empowered.

We’ll hear a lot of positive and inspirational things this weekend about creative research. My paper is going to sound very negative next to them, but I hope this negativity can serve a useful purpose. I hope that my story of isolation will resonate with others’ experiences, and highlight the danger that faces us when we, as practitioners, are separated from the knowledge creators. I also hope that the journey I’ve been on may gesture towards a different way to think about ourselves as professionals, and about what knowledge in counselling could mean.

Research, Knowledge and Fear

I’m going to start, then, with a very brief description of my Masters dissertation. My plan was to investigate my own identity as a white, heterosexual, middle-class man; to look at the privileges that this conferred and how I often failed to acknowledge or engage with these. I wanted to challenge my insider safety and security by involving others in the process – others who didn’t belong to the groups I belong to – others who could challenge and change me.

Fearing that any established method I chose would merely repeat and reinforce my privilege, I adopted an anti-methodological methodology. I hoped to ‘meet’ my participants, in Buber’s sense, with as few technical or power-full impediments as possible. So I sought dialogue – meeting – with Others, with no pre-set method at all except to engage and to keep on engaging. I had no criteria guiding the research except those which emerged in discussion and debate. I was the author and took responsibility for the work, but was not in complete control at any stage.

What did this look like in practical terms? Well, it meant holding an initial dialogue between myself and my participants which focused on identity (but was otherwise unstructured). Following this, both my participants and I would reflect on the transcript of that discussion and engage in further dialogue about these reflections, both via email and in person. This process would continue, spiralling hermeneutically towards a better, richer understanding of our encounters. The work would evolve in dialogue with my participants, rather than being an analysis of this dialogue.

So what happened? Well, it was a complex study, but one of the main threads that runs through the dissertation – and that I want to focus on today – is the way in which, after each dialogue, I would go away and try to understand what had occurred, and then share this attempt at understanding. And each time I shared this attempt at understanding, I would be told in response: “You’re trying to make this too clean, Phil – too final – too sensible”. I was told:  “You’re trying to understand it – to stand underneath it and justify and encompass it all”. And further, I was told that this movement was symptomatic of a privilege which seeks to encompass and erase difference.

As the piece developed, then, my participants were telling me that my goal of telling a clear story, or even of just plain understanding at all were themselves goals of a privilege which whitewashed and denied difference. I was invited instead to sit with the discord, to hear rather than understand; to allow the project to outgrow me.

I found this very difficult, and I shared these difficulties with my participants in a way which itself felt exposing and uncomfortable. But ultimately it was these moral and political criteria which led the writing of the dissertation. Ultimately I decided, in dialogue with my participants, that the moral and political imperative called upon me to include all of our voices, often uncommented upon, instead of rigorous analysis and clear explanation. I spent the majority of my allotted 20,000 words on these dialogues, and trusted to my reader that what mattered would come through in the writing.

The work was hugely worthwhile for me and, I hope, for my participants, and I don’t regret it. The learning I took away was of a moral, emotional and political nature, centring on what it means to be defined by others, and how unethical it can be to resist this. I have kept it with me and continue to learn from it.But the practical consequence of going off-piste in my research was that I got a much worse mark than I would have liked. This was the right mark, but the effect it had on me, which I hadn’t foreseen, was to feel excluded from academia.

And not only to feel excluded, but also, in a small way, to be excluded, as, without a distinction next to my name, I’m less likely to get funding for a PhD and, as I’m a counsellor, there’s certainly no way I can self-fund.

Now, this was my choice – I chose to write in a way which I knew risked getting a bad mark. But the feeling of being excluded from the bodies which create the knowledge that we as counsellors apply, set me in mind of other instances of alienation, and I realised that it’s something of a theme in my professional life.

Being a member of the BACP, for example, is for me an experience of having a distant, paternalistic instructor tell me what not to do. I feel I have very little voice in the body which represents me, and feel that it only represents the bland, quiet, profitable aspects of me.*

And this in turn set me in mind of another instance of isolation from my previous life as a teacher. Some years ago, while doing an MA in early years education, I conducted a piece of action research with my staff team. This research sought to raise our awareness of our interactions with young children and to reflect on these: to learn from the children and to learn how to learn from them. This was a fundamentally trusting, human, and relational piece of work, in which we all had a voice. And it paid great dividends, opening up new avenues of practical knowledge which would not have been accessible without this relational method. It was fundamentally lived, practical knowledge – it’s not the sort of thing that an outsider observing could have discovered. But not only did this knowledge not spread beyond us, it was soon overturned and negated by more official forms of knowledge: by initiatives backed up by extremely dubious but extremely evidence-focused research.

We had been encouraged to find our own practical knowledge, but were effectively told soon afterwards: “This is local, specific and not really proper knowledge. Our large scale studies are more important – they are more true”. In the years which followed this I found myself becoming more and more isolated from the sources of knowledge-creation in education, and, at the same time (because I was required to see and interact with my students in terms of this evidence-based ‘knowledge’), more and more isolated from the children in front of me. Eventually, the gap became too large and, reluctantly, I left.

The Risk to Counselling

Is this really a risk though? Do my own personal experiences really illustrate something larger? I don’t think counselling will ever end up where teaching has. For one thing counselling is much more private an enterprise, and a less political issue than teaching, and it has, at present, no statutory authorities. But I do think it’s worth considering what can happen when those practising a profession are completely isolated from the means of knowledge-creation, as is the case with teachers now. And there are signs that counselling is moving in that direction. For example, how is knowledge created in counselling? Who gets to say what counts and what doesn’t?

Well, to briefly divert into a little Foucault, there are many different discourses through which knowledge is used and defined in counselling. I want to focus on one particular discourse which is steadily gaining power and which I believe, if left un-engaged with, will widen the gap between the creators of knowledge and those who apply it. The discourse is that of evidence-based practice.

This is a discourse which holds that the only real knowledge is knowledge gained through randomised-controlled-trials and objective studies by neutral outsiders. It is a discourse which holds that knowledge is objective and measurable, and all that is not objective or measurable is not knowledge. This discourse has gained its power both through practical means such as the provision of employment to those who agree to it, and by broader cultural means.

On a practical level, for example, if you hope to work for the NHS – the largest employer in the UK – there’s a very good chance that you will have to accept the medical model and drop those elements of your personal beliefs which conflict with this. You will have to accept that you cannot learn from the patient, for example, and that your practice is defined by the research of others – others who measure a relationship as a series of inputs and outputs. You will have to accept that your clients are essentially lacking, and that you will fill in their gaps by operating a manual. If you don’t (or at least if you don’t pretend to), you won’t get work. Them’s the rules.

This practical power is hugely powerful, but there’s a larger societal story to tell too, about the systematic stripping-away of ideology and morality from public discourse. This de-politicising and de-moralising of public debate has left a vacuum into which the evidence-based-practitioners and their friends, the economists, have stepped. Economic impact is now the sole bottom line of almost all public debate, and so, increasingly, the knowledge that counts is knowledge which is measurable and has economic impacts. Just think of Lanyard. Knowledge of a more personal, local kind, does not count, because it cannot be measured.

This means that if you want to be engaged in creating knowledge; knowledge that matters, knowledge that has an impact, then it must be of this sort. Any other just holds no sway. Them’s the rules.

This is particularly pernicious a state of affairs in counselling, where so much of what we do – as is the case in teaching and in creative research – is about remaining open to and meeting the Other. The best of teaching and counselling and research is about a disciplined openness, in which we learn in relationship and from the relationship not about the relationship. But if you’re practising EBP you cannot be open to the client (or the child, or your subject-matter), because they are not in the evidence. And that means that you cannot learn from the client. And that means you let the client down.

As counsellors we can often end up feeling powerless in the face of the ‘evidence-based practice’ discourse: we often feel that the ‘knowledge’ created within this discourse is wrong but feel we cannot say so – we just don’t have the words.

Giving us the Words – Elliot Eisner and the Connoisseur

I want to end today by suggesting a framework within which we can start to stand up for ourselves more vocally and explicitly – a framework which will give us the words. And to do so I’m going to use a concept from the work of an educationalist called Elliot Eisner.

Eisner (and a cat)

Instead of the technical or industrial approach to knowledge which we see in evidence-based practice, Eisner suggested that teachers may benefit from adopting a more artistic model of knowledge. Looking to the world of art, Eisner found that although there was no overall regulator dictating standards or evaluative criteria, there were, nevertheless, clear criteria and standards which were constantly being negotiated, developed and refined between artists and critics and audiences. And further, he found that these criteria provided enough structure for people to practice well and to improve their practice.

Within the world of art Eisner found explicit, measurable and objective criteria such as technical skill and draughtsmanship (much as we’d find in EBP), alongside criteria relating to established canons of practice and theory (and so an understanding of what knowledge has been passed down to us – much as we’d find in the ‘schools’ or ‘tribes’ approach to counselling), alongside amorphous but no less important criteria such as, for example, emotional impact and moral worth. Eisner called the person who engages with these different criteria and weighs them up against each other a connoisseur. These connoisseurs have a felt sense honed over years of direct, lived experience and dialogue, and use this engage in a community of rigorous discussion about truth, value and meaning in art. They have a shared sense of purpose, direction and practice, but within that disagree reasonably and rigorously about how to achieve those ends.

Eisner hoped to import that culture of critique and connoisseurship into education. He loathed the curricula which sought to control every aspect of a child’s experience in school. But he also distrusted the wooliness of unreflective teachers who were often just going along with tradition because it’s what we do. Education, as he saw it, was a messy human process, with aspects of culture and morality and subjective taste, as well as aspects of efficacy and science and objective research. He wanted teachers to be open to the cultural and individual, as well as the universal and rational. He wanted them to develop their own language to weigh up these different ways of judging and make informed, situated choices between them. Eisner knew that the only way that the art/science of teaching could be protected from industrialised knowledge-creation was to encourage teachers to take an active role in their own community of connoisseurs; for each and every one of them to become a researcher who could stand up for their own lived knowledge, and engage with each others’.

How does this help us in counselling? Well the best counselling is messy and human. It is a moral and ethical as well as a technical process. As counsellors we are artists but we are not just artists. We are concerned with our impact in the world and with doing counselling well. How these different aspects – these different criteria – are to be balanced is an unsolvable conundrum. But what Eisner’s notion of the connoisseur highlights is that this unsolvable balancing act is one which we must continue to debate instead of ceding, frightened, to one particular discourse. It gives us confidence, I hope, to engage in this debate – to say, unashamedly: “My standard of judging is potentially more important than yours”. To say “I understand things from the inside which you, on the outside, cannot grasp, and vice versa”. To face up to the EBP and engage with it rather than rejecting it out-of-hand, or slavishly submitting to it. To place the lived relationship and therefore the client at the centre of our work and to learn from these, arguing once again in our clients’ best interests.

The notion of the community of connoisseurs gives us a language through which to place practical knowledge on a par with technical knowledge, and to take back some control of our work. It gives us confidence, I hope, to acknowledge the compromised, messy nature of relationship, and to reject the totalising, manualising impulses of industrial knowledge where they are inappropriate.

My Journey to Keele

Which brings me to the closing remarks of my paper, and the question: how do we get to a position in which our voices as connoisseurs can be heard?

The battle has been lost – for the moment – in teaching. I left the profession because I felt I was not enough, and that there were too few people to fight with, and too few words with which to argue. But we are fortunate that we already, in counselling, share aspects of connoisseurship in, for example, the supervisory relationship, and in conferences like this, today. This conference is an opportunity for connoisseurship; for us to find our voices. We won’t find our voices by looking above for someone to give them us: we need to look towards each other, and stand up for – and to – each other. But the point I want to leave you with is that we have to look outwards as well as inwards – to those who disagree as well as to those who agree. If our situated, creative local knowledge matters we need to be saying that to others as well as to each other. We need to stand up together and say: “This matters. It is important. You need to listen”.

Part of my journey has been to expose myself here today and to say: my research was worthwhile because, in that instance, the moral and political were worth more than the analytic and judgemental. The lived-experience was more important than the mark scheme. Part of my own journey has also been to switch from the academic route into blogging as an avenue for reaching more people outside of the bubble of those who agree with me: turning out as well as in. Which seems like a very good place to stop and turn outwards to you for questions…

* After I presented this paper, I attended a keynote presentation by Andrew Reeves (of BACP chair fame), and my views have somewhat changed. An article based on this paper will briefly explore this in an upcoming issue of Therapy Today.


Some of the things I’ve written recently have been very negative. Most of the things. Living alone and listening to two hours of news a day ferments a pitch of negativity that, if left unchecked, would fester and develop into sores. It needs an outlet – it needs lancing. Normally it’d be her indoors who’d get an earful, but she’s currently displaced. You’ve been my displaced partner, you guys. You’re welcome!

But like any displaced partner you don’t just want to hear me whinge when I get home, so I thought I’d try to say something positive about what is good. It’s harder and scarier than saying something negative, but taking risks is the whole point of being in a relationship isn’t it. Isn’t it?

Anyway, I was also impelled to write this by seeing a therapist again. I’m seeing a therapist again you guys! Not because I’m in a particularly bad state at present – I’m cool – but because the times in my life that I’ve seen a therapist are times in which I’ve lived better and more intensely. I’d not want to see a therapist all the time because, well, money. And shame/self-respect. But therapy with the right person at the right time is ace. The right person at present is a chap who goes in for a bit of the psychosynthesis.


Sounds like some hypno-hippie-hipster pseudo-scientific bullshit right? It’s not, I don’t think. Maybe it is – I don’t know a lot about it (which is one of the reasons I like it), but I do know that, unlike most flavours of therapy, psychosynthesis seems pretty agnostic in its view of the person. Instead of trying to benevolently manipulate the client into agreement with their true state, it encourages them to make sense of themselves, often through a series of internal characters called subpersonalities or voices. These might be the much-maligned inner child who Freud was so interested in fiddling with, or they may be character-traits which emerge in certain situations, or relationship roles, or imagined future selves, or whatever. Unlike many of the other flavours of therapy there’s no prefigured plan about which voices each person should have. It’s creative and exciting and scary, and allows you – sorry, me – to explore and create with a sense of freedom and playfulness, instead of a fixation on uncovering underlying causes (psychoanalysis), becoming more pro-social (CBT, TA, other acronyms) or on polishing a turd (person-centred).

One of the things that has emerged for me in the course of therapy is the difference between those of my internal voices that speak from a place of feast, and those which speak from a place of famine [I think this distinction comes from the book ‘The Gift‘, by Lewis Hyde, but I’m not sure]. Engaging with them has been fascinating personally, but has also thrown an interesting light on public life – especially on those aspects which make me so angry and negative.


The voices which speak from a place of famine are those concerned with conservation, preservation and safety. They’re voices dominated by the past and the future: they have learnt the hard way and don’t won’t be bitten twice. They stockpile like a prepper, and are just about as likeable. They’re the voices which whine and wheedle: “Are you sure you’ve got enough strength for that?” or “What if you let him down – it’d be awful to promise something you couldn’t follow through on,” or “You need to be sure you’ve got this right, why don’t you check it again; much better you find the error before anyone else has the chance. In fact, it’s probably better no-one gets to see this at all”.

The voices of famine are afraid of overcommitting and will only take the most calculated and justifiable of risks. They don’t trust themselves very far, and they trust others even less: everything external will potentially let them down, so they seek to gather as much as possible inside themselves, and cut off from anything which can’t be consumed or controlled. And if the world must be engaged with, then it should be engaged with on the safest possible terms: scepticism, atomism, and safety-in-numbers-evidence.


The voices which speak from a place of feasting are – in me – rarer, but they are vital. They are enthusiastic, generous and profligate; they spend and give and trust recklessly in both themselves and the world. They speak from a place of strength but also vulnerability: in their confidence they expose themselves, consuming and enjoying and thereby making themselves less prepared. The feast can be enjoyed only because the past has been forgotten (ignored) and because the future is a place of hope and trust rather than fear. These voices sing “Expand, make connections with others; they won’t let you down,” and “Make yourself vulnerable: you’ll be held”, and “Believe, why not? You can change later.”

Voices which speak from a place of feast seek to expand, but not in order to control or make safe: their aim is to experience, now, what is good and to experience more of it. These voices are happy with science and evidence, but are not constrained by it as they have faith in something better, and are not tied to the past. They make sense of the world by immediate judgements rather than reasoned argument – aesthetics and virtue predominate: ‘how does it taste’ rather than ‘how many calories’; ‘is it the right thing to do’ rather than ‘can I get away with it’; ‘how am I moved’ rather than ‘what does my friend think’.

What has this got to do with the news and stuff? 

The more I’ve got angry about the flacid paucity of public debate about, for example, the EU referendum, academies, tax prickery, etc., the clearer it has become to me that the only voices with which we permit ourselves to speak, in public, are voices of famine.

Take, for example, the queen of the sciences – the voice to which all other voices much defer, in contemporary debate – economics. Economics is the voice of famine in its purest form: it posits nothing outside of itself, and aims to control by understanding. Anything which exists outside of economics is either irrelevant or reduced to itself. In the EU referendum debate, for example, all of the argument on both sides have been economic-based. No feast voice has been confident enough to stand up with an alternative. Can you imagine a pro-EU politician saying, as I believe they should:”the economic arguments are irrelevant: what matters is something bigger – a principle of shared humanity and generosity. The fact that we’re giving 151 million pounds or whatever a week to nations who are poorer than us is a good thing. We should be giving more”. It just wouldn’t happen.

And this is part of the power of the famine voices – both on a personal and political level – they’re inherently reasonable, and they’re right. You shouldn’t take a risk; there’s nothing to justify it. Because they are, by definition, reasonable and based on the best evidence, they cannot but win if engaged with on their own terms. Even when proved to be absolutely useless, they still win out. It hasn’t gone uncommented upon that very few economists predicted the whole global financial schermozzle, but public debate is dominated now more than ever by the economist. Just like someone suffering from OCD, we may not like the tools we have which keep us safe, and they may limit our lives severely, but they’re the only safety we know.

Similarly, if you listen to people in the 50s talk about their hopes for the future, they talk about 3-day-weeks and enjoying the present tense of leisure time and exploration and creativity and relaxation. Instead (and despite living in a much much much much safer world) we’ve put all our faith in a way of life which, broadly, makes us unhappy. But at least it’s safe.

The same can be seen in education

Read any education research from the 70s and you’ll find all kinds of idealism and hopefulness. You’ll find both sides of the educational divide framing their beliefs in terms of what society is for, and what counts as good or right. You’ll find people opining that as we become technically more adept at teaching and understand more about the brain, we’ll make space within education for all of the richness of human interaction and growth and creativity.

Look to current debates and you’ll find something else. Take, for example, the recent arguments over compulsory academisation. The main argument put up by the unions and the labours was evidential and economic. They argued, erroneously, that the evidence suggested that academisation made for worse results and that they would cost more than LA-run schools. They disagree about the working-out of the sums, but fundamentally they agree. Fundamentally they agree that what matters in education the speed at which a pre-defined skill can be learnt and demonstrated (parroted, or aped, depending on your jungle-based-animal-analogy of choice). They value the present purely on the basis of what it will be in the future: the child’s current experience is relevant only in terms of impact on future life. Sometimes this future-valuation is seen by good people as a bad thing, as when education is reduced to creating economy-fodder. Good people rightly baulk at the contention that experience x is good if and only if it will have a long term positive effect on employability. But good people also use this method of future-evaluation because they don’t know any other: for example, when early education is judged in terms of later mental-health or exam results.

In both cases both sides agree that the child’s experience of education is never to be valued on its own terms: its value is purely extrinsic, and situated in the future. Both sides speak with a voice stuck firmly in a place of fear and famine. Both sides speak with a voice that does not trust, and can not enjoy or value what is happening right now. A voice which is scared of global racers and technologies and tiger economies and Finland.

What else might they have argued? Well, in these times it is hard to think of an argument which isn’t about efficiency and fear, and still harder to make that kind of feast-argument stand up against the famine-status-quo. These kind of arguments just sound silly because they don’t play into the publicly-sanctioned language of debate. They might have said, for example, that even though ‘evidence’ suggests that method x gets better educational outcomes, method y is more humane, and feels more respectful. Ultimately I would argue that those of us who have worked with young children know, from those children, what is right better than those who watch from outside the relationship. We have been told.

The Family

Ultimately, though, I think argument is the wrong way to think about this. Arguing and debate are themselves modes of interaction which come out of famine: they are concerned with correctly organising what we already have rather than creating something better; discovering something new. Instead we ought to look to areas of life where the feast voices are established and undimmed. And chief amongst them is the home. The way we approach education is the complete inverse of the way that we parent (so long as we’re not hot-housing leopards or whatever). When we parent we delight in the moment, valuing the child intrinsically for what they are, trusting that they will grow and develop (without drawing the logical conclusion that, as a child is not yet as developed as they will become, they are therefore inferior and deficient). We are hopeful and confident and so instil hope and courage and boldness and creativity.

One part of the education system in which a more trusting, creative voice still holds some sway is in the Early Years (0-5). Why? Largely because, and excuse the sexism here, the Early Years has always been dominated by women, and sees education as a natural growth from care and parenting, rather than something which needs to be imposed to address a deficit. But even here the voices which speak from a place of joy and delight and feast are being drowned out by the famine voices of whitehall and ofsted and fearful parents.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all become hippies and just love one another. The feast and the famine each have their place. Feast voices can lead to the kind of excesses seen in Weimar Germany or Chelsea. Your man Nietzsche was all about the feast: he wrote about how the strong can afford to forget because they’re strong and can turn any situation to their advantage by dancing or raping or climbing golden trellaces, or whatever else his blonde beasts got up to. But we’re not Nietzsche – the voices of famine are vital to living well with each other and staying safe and learning. Vital. But they’re not everything, and it’s these famine voices that dominate the public sphere at the moment. In private life it’s different: in spheres where the influence has traditionally been more female we find more of the voices of feast: child rearing, care, friendship. But in public life we’re afraid to take a risk and argue (or sing, shout, whatever) passionately and creatively for anything, especially when a famine voice of science, evidence, economics, or plain old fear stands opposite us.

My own voices are often in a similar (im)balance: the conservative voices win out through their exercise of fear, while the creative, vulnerable, trusting voices cower and fester. My problem is that all of those feast voices need to be heard, and if they’re not allowed a positive space they’ll emerge in potentially harmful and destructive ways. The parallel with public life is clear, as bozos like BoJo and Hitler come to fill the space vacated by good people saying interesting, creative, hopeful things. Scums like Farrage and Trump speak to our need to believe in something bigger than just getting by, but these are feast voices which have gone off, badly, and become parodies of themselves. They inspire a belief in something bigger than fear when they are, in fact, governed by precisely the same fear as the famine voices on the other side. If a quieter, more vulnerable voice emerges which offers an alternative, creative way to be in public life, they’re drowned out by the bullshit and sink without trace. A case in point: Gordon Browns.

Remember Gordon Browns?

No, probably not. It’s hard to look back on his premiership without the taint of the narrative he’s since been crowbarred into, but at the time he took power, he offered something new and, to me anyway, exciting: a moral compass. His first 100 days were charcaterised by quiet and principled good leadership. Although he was all about the moneys, he often eschewed arguments from economics, and spoke instead about bigger ideas of right and wrong. It was good. But he sank. He sank because he listened to the famine voices of well-intentioned but spineless advisors who told him to apologise to a bigot whom he had accurately characterised as a bigot. Instead of taking his serious job seriously, he succumbed to stupid advice and tried, excruciatingly, to smile.

What he offered in those early days was an alternative to the narrative of politics as mere application of evidence: his moral compass was such that it privileged what was right over what is reasonable, or rational (in an economic sense). He reached beyond the past and the fear of the future into something bigger. Because he didn’t couple this with a smiling gonk-face, and lost his nerve when he needed to stick to it (against all reasonable advice), he was hounded out by a hostile press who couldn’t understand what he offered and preferred the cleaner narrative lines of economics, bacon sandwiches, and smiling faces. The same will probably be true of the Corbyn, who also makes no sense to the voices of famine, and is insecure and timid when faced by their reasonableness.

Ugh, this has been quite the ramble. I find it harder to marshal and organise my thoughts into clear arguments when trying to be positive. But perhaps that is part of the problem with positive feast voices altogether. They speak from a place of insecurity and confidence. They’re mixed up. They’re paradoxical and unreasonable. They can be picked apart with analysis and critique. They’re wrong. But they’re also important beyond measure as, without them, we are just fitting in and going along and hoping that we don’t get found out. That’s no way to live.


A brief thought on academies

All primary schools are to become academies. This has been coming for a while; we all knew it would happen. But it’s sad all the same. The coming privatisation of education was one of the reasons I left full-time teaching, but to those outside education I’m guessing it must be a hard story to follow. From the outside I imagine it sounds like a relatively minor shift in organisation, moving away from a council-led system to a school-led system. It might even sound empowering and optimistic: a redirection of power away from the council and towards the grass roots of schools and teachers. It’s not.

I’m not going to write too much about the sadness I’m feeling today, or about the very good arguments against academisation, because there’s good people doing the same more eloquently than I can. They’re making arguments about the creeping privatisation that has already crept into the heart of the school system, and about the unfairness of un-redistribution of wealth. They’re also making good but fundamentally self-serving arguments about pay and conditions. And they (Lucy Powell) are making bland not-really-arguments about efficacy and budget management, entirely forgetting that education is not primarily an economic issue.

Those arguments are all great (except the last one, obviously, which isn’t even an argument – more of a whine and a shrug), but the point I want to make is a moral (and I hope practical) one about fear and solidarity.

First, then, solidarity. Schools are not islands. They’re part of a community – often the most important part of a community. They’re also part of groups which share practice and knowledge across different schools, groups which get better prices for services by buying in bulk, and myriad other groups. This is important. Without these groupings schools would not function. In the olden days, the groups to which schools most closely adhered were the Local Authorities (the LA) which ran the schools. These were geographical groupings which, like communities did in the olden days, bought together people and schools of different types and attitudes.

When I taught in Enfield, the LA bought together schools in some of the most deprived and dangerous parts of London with schools serving those who lived in streets where the average property price is over £2 million. This served many purposes – not least the redistribution of funding away from schools where it was not needed towards those where it was. But perhaps more importantly it gave us a sense of identity and solidarity with those unlike us. For example, I’m virulently anti-posh, but felt a great sense of solidarity with the posh schools we were partnered with. I felt impelled to help them where I could, and to be helped in return. The LA allowed us to conceive of education as a moral and communitarian project; one based not on efficacy and efficiency and outcome measures, but on solidarity and care. We were in it together.

Doubtless this was an inefficient way to run things. Doubtless changes could’ve been made to make LA’s more useful and coherent – I was the first to complain about the way that the system was being run. But when you take it away what are you left with?

Well, schools not being islands, they will need to band together, as is already happening. But how do they band together in this new, post-LA world? The more ambitious will band together in loose alliances of similarity. Like single-issue political groups they will look for strength in numbers with those who are the same. Geography being no longer such a relevance (we’ve got skypes after all), schools are free to find similarities at a distance and, like teenagers seeking affirmation, find a grouping which buttresses their sense of uniqueness and importance. The less ambitious will (and this is much more likely) out of fear band together under a new boss who tells them what to be and do. These are academy chains. In both cases there is no sense of solidarity with a project which is open to the world – there is just a niche and an inward-looking. A closing off and an erecting of boundaries.

‘So what?’ You might think. ‘If it makes schools better at teaching children why not do it?’ Quite aside from the fact that it doesn’t make schools better, there is a bigger issue here which is that schools socialise children into society. They act as mini-worlds in which children learn what society thinks about them as individuals and groups. In the messy LA-led school environment, there were plenty problems, but there was at least a sense of community and connection and identity. We were public servants doing things because they were right – culturally, socially and morally – not because they worked or because we were being paid. In these academy chains your identity is not provided even in part by a location or a history or a culture – it is provided entirely by an insular grouping of people whose main aim is to make a profit out of the state. This is it. This is the culture that the child is growing up into. This is the message they receive about themselves and their place in the world: your place, child, is not connected to your area or your family or culture or society or nation – your place is defined by a corporation. A business. In these new academy chains there is no public service, no giving; only rational choice and self-interest. Elliott Eisener wrote about the industrial metaphor in education which sees children as input and output. He wrote in the 60s about how it was thankfully disappearing. But its coming back now.

I’ve already written more than I meant to, so I’ll keep my second point – about fear – brief. I’ve written before about fear in the education system, and how it is propagated and accepted at every level from DfE and OfSTED down. The reason I bring it up again is that this is the other message which we are sending to our children: be afraid.

Imagine, for a moment, what this new loosening of constraints would have looked like if there were no OfSTED or league tables. It might have inspired a revolution in creativity and connection and care, as schools concentrated on what really matters to their children and to society. All of the time spent following developing and implementing useless and harmful curricula could be refocused on children’s development as people. Schools would have grouped together in order to be more responsive, open and creative, and teachers would have become researchers and artists, able and trained to trust the children in their care.

But in a climate of fear and oversight, schools are not in a place to do this. The driving concern is to maintain and keep safe. This is what motivates them to band together. The main aim is not to get it wrong and be found wanting. Creativity can not flourish in these circumstances. Neither can children. But this is what we will soon be teaching them about themselves and the world.


Puttin’ ’em up

Around the age of 12 my parents allowed me free rein to decorate my room. Inspired by Changing Rooms, which I enjoyed too much, I rag-rolled the walls in a pale dead green, which I thought looked nice. I have no photos of it so you’ll just have to trust me that it didn’t.

We went to MFI to get some furniture and I chose a matching desk and chest of drawers in black ash. I felt this as a greatmmGjSOm4M03VvWMjUD_-jUg sign of my precocious maturity. Not for me pure black – no, that would be too definite a statement – too Adrian Mole. With the wood-effect veneer of black ash I rejected the immaturity of interior design, declaring myself above such trifles. Black ash was a shorthand for masculine detachment; a kind of anti-decorating. Behind the veneer I hid my fear of commitment to something positive, definite and solid – of something that could be judged and found wanting. Nobody could find black ash wanting; it wasn’t even there.

As I grew up and moved out, I threw out the posters I’d bought on Saturday shopping trips from Athena. Like so many childish things I became ashamed of in the presence of others (cc. Games Workshop), I quietly disposed of my collection of posters. I told myself I wasn’t going to be one of those pseuds who curated their personalities in such obvious, mainstream ways. I was special – Athena couldn’t contain me – and so I hid my special light.

Birch-TreesAt times I made a brief concession to taste, buying a nice print of an artist just slightly off the beaten track, or a work just slightly neglected – a Klimt treescape or a Twombly print – that would demonstrate to those in the know that I was in the know too, but would not move others; the kinds of prints that I could hide behind. But for the most part I moved house so often that this seemed pointless.untitled

It was my movement therapist who pointed out to me how important the spaces we live in are, and how big a hole I might be leaving in my existence by not paying heed to my environment. But it took the kindness of a gift from Aarthi to spur me into action here once again in halls of residence. She gave me a picture I’d taken, all put up in a nice little frame, and I’ve followed suit, with the photos below.

P1030728I’m sure to most people reading this it’s obvious that putting up pictures is a great way of staying in contact with parts of
yourself that you want to stay in contact with, and with parts of other people you’d like to be more in contact with, but it’s
come as a bit of a surprise to me. I like turning from my desk to meet a picturesque part of my past or a person I hope to be in contact with in the future.

P1030727In the past I’ve made little books of my photos, which are nice, but there’s something more exposing, and so more rewarding, about putting them up on a wall like this. Of course, all of this is made easier by having an incredibly cute nephew to print photos of – there’s nothing quite so sanctioned to put on your
wall, or anywhere, as a cute child.

Incidentally, the frames are from the Sainsbury’s, and yes, they are in black (and white) ash.

I am a man

One of the men. These are other men who are ones of the men:

I struggle with this. I prefer to ignore it, telling myself and other people that I’m a person, not a man. Pure. Uncompromised. Even in the female-dominated worlds I’ve chosen to inhabit, I’ve never felt like (or been required to feel like) I’ve transgressed or am unusual. And rarely have I felt any bond or connection with other men who choose to work in caring professions. Because I’m not like them. I’m not like anyone else. I’m not a man like they are.

Then last night I picked up this book called ‘Leaning‘, by Ronald Pelias and came to this passage:

“My tears might come when I’m watching a film, a stage performance, or even a television commercial. Often such tears seem less about the object of my attention and more about some emotional build-up from some other aspects of my life. These tears might best be described as a poignant bowel movement. They serve as a needed release”

This struck a chord. It [in a phrase I loathe but has become a part of my vocabulary thanks to woolly old counselling] resonated. Partly because of masterchef, but more generally it was the first piece of writing about being a man that I’ve not been dismissive of or felt unable to match up to. The first real connection with a man writing about (or singing, painting, dancing about) being a man.

As a man, I’ve been encouraged and allowed to see myself as pure and without comparisons. I’ve been permitted to define myself as connected or unconnected; to adopt or reject a wide variety of scripts with little fear of policing. This neutrality allows a great deal of freedom. But in that freedom you lose… No, not you – I.

I lose, I’ve lost some of the ability to feel solidarity. I’ve been so in love with the forward movement that freedom and purity permit that I’ve rejecting the albatross weight of solidarity.

ron pelias photo 1pelThe dissertation I’m writing at the moment is aiming to reconnect, to be dragged down and up and outwards by men, and by people who aren’t men. People to whom I’ve always been connected, but have preferred to ignore. I’ll be writing more about this over the summer, but for now here’s a man I’ve not felt the need to drop and cut off:

I recommend ‘Leaning’ to anyone who wants to hear a man talk poetically and clearly about what it’s like to be the man that he is. I like him.

I always cry at Masterchef.

I’ve made a big deal out of not watching many films, especially your man Disney’s films. I’ve made some trite arguments about how socially conservative and oppressive and sentimental and etc. they are. But the truth is a bit more clouded than that.

While it’s true that the Disneys are maudlin and reinforce negative social roles, this is just as true of my favourite program: the Master Chef. Witness, for example, the way that women cook from the heart and just love to feed people, or, if belonging to one of the ethnicities, understand spicing because they learnt it at their mother’s hip, whereas men cook with flair, intelligence, creativity, precision or eccentricity, and only incidentally have families or emotions.

And yet I watch Masterchef. Why? I think it’s because the emotion is pretty well signposted and self-contained: you’ve got a little light-jeopardy (my favourite type) throughout, followed by relief or disbelief at the judging. No surprises. No big emotions. That is, until the final, when they smear the background music ham-fisted across the reactions of the contestants, bullying the emotion into the viewer.

Part of the reason I’m so ready to dismiss the disneys of this world (or any film that isn’t cynical in tone) is that when I do, rarely, watch one of these things without safety measures, I get far too emotional. Example: I watched Freaky Friday last week – the one with the Lohan in it. I teared up throughout. I’m not nearly cynical enough for my own good.

And, yes, I cried during the Master Chef final. I always do. Even in the ridiculous Professionals final where they gave the win to two of them.

I’m not sure why I felt the need to share this. Maybe it’s all those flowers making me emotional, or something to do with being on a counselling course. Either way, here’s Greg’n’John singing. It never makes me cry.

PS. Your man Wallace has the same glasses as me. This was not deliberate.